Notre Dame vs. Arizona State: Is Irish Secondary Ready for Taylor Kelly?

Connor Killoren@@Connor_KillorenSenior Analyst IOctober 3, 2013

Sep 14, 2013; West Lafayette, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish cornerback Bennett Jackson (2) runs for a touchdown after intercepting a pass intended for Purdue Boilermakers wide receiver Shane Mikeskey (87) in the fourth quarter at Ross-Ade Stadium. Notre Dame won 31-24. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The issues have been prevalent and ever noticeable for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, but one in particular has experienced the luxury of flying under the radar.

With the offense—particularly starting quarterback Tommy Rees—receiving tons of criticism and drawing the ire of what seems like the entire fanbase, the disappointing play of Notre Dame's secondary has gone largely unnoticed.

And its most daunting test thus far this season awaits on Saturday in the form of the Arizona State offense led by redshirt junior quarterback Taylor Kelly.

The 6'2", 203-pound signal-caller has been one of the most dynamic passers in college football this season. He ranks eighth nationally in passing yards (1,370) and third in passing yards per game (342.5).

Sep 28, 2013; Tempe, AZ, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils quarterback Taylor Kelly (10) throws during the first half against the USC Trojans at Sun Devil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

While the majority of FBS quarterbacks have accumulated similar statistics against inferior competition in the nonconference portion of the respective schedules, Kelly has done so against three top-40 defenses in Stanford (35th), USC (19th) and Wisconsin (eighth).

With those impressive performances to look back on, Kelly should be beside himself with excitement to match wits with Notre Dame's secondary.

Last season during the Irish's improbable run to the BCS National Championship Game, Notre Dame boasted a top-25 passing efficiency defense despite beginning the season with a secondary predicted by many to be the weak link of an otherwise solid defense.

But time changes everything, I suppose.

One season later with three returning starters—cornerbacks Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell as well as safety Matthias Farley—the Irish secondary has experienced a significant drop-off.

The unit's unmistakable regression has resulted in a disheartening showing in passing efficiency defense, earning a national ranking of 58th.

It's imperative to view that ranking in context, too.

It would be understandable if the Irish secondary had been placed at odds due to a weak showing from the team's rushing defense, but that hasn't been the case during the 2013 season.

Sep 7, 2013; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines wide receiver Jeremy Gallon (21) catches a pass for a touchdown in front of Notre Dame Fighting Irish cornerback KeiVarae Russell (6) in the second quarter at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Ca
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

That in itself should have Notre Dame fans worried about the amount of damage Arizona State's Kelly is capable of doing Saturday evening at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. For an accurate comparison, let's take a look at what Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner accomplished against Notre Dame during his team's 41-30 victory in Week 2.

A pass-first quarterback with the ability to gash defenses as a rusher similar to Kelly, Gardner gave the Irish defense fits. In an eventful, back-and-forth game, he completed 21 of 33 passing attempts for 294 yards and four touchdowns while also accounting for 82 of Michigan's 166 rushing yards.

As the Notre Dame defense expended significant amounts of energy accounting for Gardner's threat as a rusher, the Irish secondary was often placed at odds in man coverage.

Should the same scenario play out against Arizona State, Kelly would be in for a stat-sheet-stuffing performance.

But what's working in the Irish's favor is the Sun Devils' reliance on the passing game.

Through four games, head coach Todd Graham's offense has struggled running the ball, ranking 85th nationally in rushing yards per game. A significant improvement during the course of one week is unlikely, which will possibly allow for the Irish to play a number of nickel and dime looks.

Essentially, the fortunes of Notre Dame's defensive backs in this contest will come down to how well the Sun Devils are able to run the football.